January 11 2013

“I was very excited to be able to look at so much rich material in both the object collection and the library—a lot of it not available elsewhere, even in reproduction. It is so amazing that someone decided to collect all of this,” says Laura Sivert, who was a fellow in residence for much of January. During her fellowship, Sivert explored materials related to the visual culture of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in its early years. She also looked at the visual dissemination of governmental projects as a nation-building tool in mid-twentieth-century America and elsewhere.

Sivert is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research at The Wolfsonian informed her in-progress dissertation, Powering a Nation: The Cultural Landscape of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933–1945.  “Primarily, I am looking at the TVA and the way the project was portrayed and promoted itself in media. What attracted me to this topic is that the representation changed and the venues changed,” she says. “The TVA visually morphed from a job-creating, land-saving, modernizing enterprise into a war power project through propaganda, ephemera, and posters. What interested me was the ways in which a government program was aestheticized by both inside and outside forces.”

The Great Depression hit the Tennessee Valley hard. The TVA was created in 1933 to provide relief through the building of infrastructure, primarily dams, and as a result to offer jobs, affordable energy, navigable waterways, and to improve the agricultural terrain. Sivert explains that a good deal of existing scholarship explores the socioeconomic and ecological impact of the TVA, but not much scholarly attention has been paid to the project’s visual culture. This lack is surprising given that “the TVA produced, published, and widely disseminated images. By enlisting renowned photographers and artists to describe its modernizing goals, the project was able to reach citizens of the Tennessee Valley, the country, and other nations,” she says.

In studying these images, Sivert is particularly sensitive not only to the ways in which the visuals publicize the projects and the greater context of modernization, but the underlying expression having to do with power. “Dams literally generate electrical power and figuratively promote ideological power,” she says. She contends that these visuals of governmental building projects speak to “shaping a national self-image.” In addition to studying the TVA materials in the museum’s holdings, she also investigated visuals created for other nations’ government infrastructure projects such as the Agro Pontino in Italy, the Soviet Dnieper Dam, and the German Autobahn.

Sivert is one of three scholars awarded a fellowship for 2012–2013 through The Wolfsonian’s Fellowship Program. Inaugurated in 1995, the program has hosted more than seventy scholars to date.